Eric Holder: Voting Rights, Redistricting, And Gerrymandering

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Attorney General Eric Holder "held protecting ballot access for all eligible voters ‘must be viewed not only as a legal issue but as a moral imperative.’”

[Election 2012]

Attorney General Eric Holder gave an interesting speech on Tuesday December 13, 2011 at the Lyndon B. Johnson Library in which he took on the issue of redistricting that has been causing some concern, particularly across the South, as the nation gears up for the 2012 national elections; perhaps the “most important national elections of our lifetime.”

President Johnson, who signed the 1965 Voting Rights Act would have been proud of Mr. Holder whose Justice Department promises to move aggressively in reviewing any attempts at voter suppression.

According to The New York Times article on December 14, 2011: “Voting laws that civil rights advocates say will dampen minority participation in next year’s election. Pulling no punches and promising to use the full weight of his department to ensure that new electoral laws are not discriminatory, the Attorney General held protecting ballot access for all eligible voters ‘must be viewed not only as a legal issue but as a moral imperative.’”

Thereupon he called on all Americans to urge their “political parties to resist the temptation to suppress certain votes in the hope of attaining electoral success and, instead achieve success by appealing to more voters.” This issue is so significant, for some time, groups across the country have been sounding the alarm expressed through the media and in protest marches. However, the belief is the government had been eyeballing the situation and has chosen the appropriate time to act.

Whether it’s the NAACP and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in its report entitled “Defending Democracy: Confronting Modern Barriers to Voting Rights in America” or The NAACP’s President and CEO Benjamin Jealous’ “Stand for Freedom” speech, these long-standing defenders of Civil Rights understand the situation most. They have chronicled trends enacted by Republican controlled statehouses particularly after the “Tea Party” successes in the 2010 national and state elections.

For some time now attention has been focusing on voting rights as it will be affected through redistricting which occurs every 10 years after the census count. The argument is valid that the dominant political party in state legislatures has a tendency to redraw the lines in a manner that benefits that party’s incumbent members and the new candidates they intend to field.

This method of manipulating the political boundaries has been called “Gerrymandering”.

 Apparently, such an individual had been assigned to draw up a particular voting district and he skewed the configuration to such an extent, one observer remarked the new district lines looked very much like a salamander. The author then responded, “This is not a salamander, it is a gerrymander!” The name stuck and so, any attempt to carve an unusual district voting lines that include certain groups or exclude or hinder voting rights of others, is considered “Gerrymandering.”

Plato and Greenberg in The American Political Dictionary (1989: 129-30) describes “gerrymandering” as “drawing of legislative district boundary lines to obtain partisan or factional advantage,” explained the significance of this practice in that: “Most redistricting laws enacted by state legislatures show evidence of varying degrees of boundary manipulation for partisan advantage. Historically, gerrymandering resulted in gross overrepresentation of rural areas in the House of Representatives and in most state legislatures.

In 1964, the Supreme Court ruled on this issue (Davis v. Bandemer, 478 U.S. 109) should be drawn on a basis of substantial equality of population. Nevertheless, the boundaries of districts that are substantially equal in population may still be drawn to secure partisan advantage, and gerrymandering persists.

Thus, a minority of a state’s voters may elect a majority of that state’s congressional delegation and a majority in both houses of the state legislature. A legislative majority can often maintain its power position by influencing elections through control over district boundaries. Critics of gerrymandering claim that it violates the "one person, one vote" rule laid down by the supreme Court in a number of apportionment decisions because gerrymandering can add to or subtract from the electoral power of voters.

In 1986, the Supreme Court ruled on this issue (Davis v. Bandemer, 48 U.S. 109) when it held that partisan political gerrymandering is subject to constitutional challenge even if the one person, one vote rule is met. Such a challenge may stand, said the Court, if the drawing lines results in continual frustration of the majority will or the effective denial of influence to a majority.”

However, while this “pre-carving” may not be considered illegal, it certainly is unethical and immoral in that it seeks to diffuse, limit or diminish the voting strength of one or more groups to aid or advance the cause of another to give that group an edge at upcoming elections. This time around the focus of victimization has been on African-Americans and Latinos whose population numbers have increased disproportionately in several states in the South. This is because they tend to vote democratic. These voters are also the keys to President Obama’s re-election in 2012. As such, Mr. Holder’s interest in the new laws is justified particularly and especially since several Democratic governors have vetoed state laws that attempt to establish such unfair principles.

“Gerrymandering” is not the only way in which the voting strength and ipso facto voting power of different, albeit minority, groups are targeted as part of a general strategy of disfranchisement. In various regions of the country people convicted of a felony are deprived of their voting rights. Some have argued in several southern states the criminal justice system is used as a mechanism to disfranchise minorities who disproportionately comprise prison populations. In some states, felons are prevented from voting for life; in others this prohibition is extended for a numbers of years after completing their sentence. In this, the argument has been made that misdemeanor criminal behaviors are oftentimes elevated to felony status and as such these individuals are removed from the voting rolls. Advocates for these dispossessed persons in response have argued once a person has paid the debt to society then all of his/her natural and civil as well as political rights should be reinstated!

Another method used to purge the voting rolls is to insist people who have not voted in recent elections be deemed ineligible. However, while this may create a gray area, nefarious individuals with a party agenda often take the initiative and remove persons in unscrupulous moves. This form of behavior is a throwback to the past Civil War era when southern voting and polling individuals went to great lengths to deny and invalidate the intent of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution that followed the conflict. To recall, southern polling officials required of “Freedmen” that they take literacy tests, show proof of property qualification, provide evidence of paid poll taxes and these individuals even invented a “grandfather clause” which held, if one’s grandfather had previously voted, then regardless of one’s literacy, intellectual or other qualifying factors they were still entitled to vote. Naturally, Blacks en masse who had been enslaved and denied the ballot previously were automatically disqualified.

Thereafter, for more than four decades the “Grandfather clause” held sway and helped some and hurt other voters until it was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1915. Matching these “legal machinations” of voting denial, threats and intimidation in face of a national government turning a deaf ear, black voting rights had been effectively nullified and a manipulated “White Primary” further alienated those hardy enough to attempt to exercise the franchise.

In one example, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice tells how her family became Republican voters. Apparently when her father tried to register as a Democrat in the South, he was asked to determine “how many beans were in a jar;” an impossible task. Instead, a Republican Registrar registered him as a Republican and the family has remained so ever since. Perhaps this is why there is such an uproar because Eric Holder, unlike many previous national and state Attorney Generals, particularly in the South, has chosen to use the full weight of the national government against such skullduggery!

In “Classic Jim Crow era” after the Civil War, there is evidence of “white men with guns at polling stations” and this was purposely designed to intimidate newly minted black voters. In such behaviors, the “secret nature of the ballot” was betrayed and an individual’s voting preference was reported to his employer the next day, almost certainly to get him fired from a hard won job. In addition, signs indicating polling sites were often turned around sending voters in the opposite direction only to be often waylaid by highwaymen as all part of the conspiracy to nullify black and other minority votes. For the longest, these sinister deeds did not exhaust efforts to block legitimate black ballot expression. What is interesting, as later as the 2008 national election Republicans engaged in similar dishonest practices such as insisting, on “Day One Republicans vote” and on “Day Two Democrats vote.” This strategy was designed to confuse persons not really astute about the voting process. Flyers with misinformation were distributed in Black areas.

People were informed if they had outstanding warrants or parking tickets the police would be there to arrest them if they tried to vote. People’s jobs were threatened if they tried to vote and a whole lot more such strategies were used to dissuade would-be voters who tended to vote democratic. In addition to the above, other legal disqualification methods may be mentioned including “mental incompetents, election law violator and vagrants” who hardly ever have these impediments reversed.

In addition to these restrictions, what Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr., in “Stand Up for Voting Rights” in Afro Times December 17, 2011, p. 4, has called “repressive and counter-productive” measures include: “Restrictions to Early Voting: The early voting period has been reduced in a number of states. This will mostly affect black voters, as research shows African-Americans have been much more likely to take advantage of early voting. They accounted for 22% of early voters during the 2008 general election in Florida.”
In addition, there are Residency Requirements where “Some states have increased the amount of time a citizen must live in a state to be entitled to vote. This particularly affects African Americans and Hispanics, as they are most likely to move from state-to-state, and are therefore less likely to have lived in there for the required length of time.” Seems the biggest item has been as Chavis states: Requiring citizens to have Photo-ID, with documentary proof of their citizenship. Some states will not accept student ID, even if issued by the state, whilst those elderly voters who were born during the time of legalized racial segregation and who were therefore not issued with birth certificates, will also have difficulties at election time.”

While the 13th Amendment freed the slaves, the 14th gave citizenship to persons born in the United States and the 15th Amendment, adopted in 1870, forbade any state from denying persons the right to vote because of race, color, or previous condition of servitude. Jack C. Plano and Milton Greenberg in The American Political Dictionary (1962) (1989: 71) summed up the significance of the Fifteenth Amendment in the following: “Although the Fifteenth Amendment does not give anyone an absolute right to vote, it does prohibit any discrimination because of race or color. Not until recent years have blacks made significant advances in realizing the goals established by the amendment. In 1960, for example, the Supreme Court ruled that the racial gerrymandering of Tuskegee, Alabama, so as to exclude all black voters from city elections violated the Fifteenth Amendment (Gomillion v. Lightfoot, 364 U.S. 339). The Civil Rights Acts of 1957, 1960, 1964 and the Voting Rights Acts of 1965, 1970, and 1975 was passed by Congress and the Twenty-Fourth Amendment prohibiting poll taxes was adopted to aid backs in overcoming the various devices used by some southern states to frustrate the purposes of the Fifteenth Amendment.” It may well be that history has repeated itself as “Gerrymandering” is paramount in the rush to redistrict in the several states and as such Attorney General Eric Holder’s intervention is not only timely but necessary.

We recognize it is time in preparation for the 2012 elections; for the process of redrawing political boundaries based on the newest census data affecting states that gain or lose population numbers. This helps in allocating how recourses are dispensed and representation in local school board, city council, county commission and state legislatures determined. Plato and Greenberg (1989: 1430 have argued: “Redistricting decisions typically are made by partisan majorities in the legislatures, and the partisan nature of the undertaking is often reflected in the final results, called gerrymandering. In the past, large cities were underrepresented and rural areas tended to be grossly overrepresented because of state legislative refusals to redistrict on a population basis. Since 1962, federal and state court rulings have required that districts be drawn on a basis of substantial equality of population. This new pattern of redistricting has radically altered the redistribution of political power in American legislative bodies in favor of urban and suburban interests. In 1983, the Supreme Court struck down a New Jersey congressional redistricting on the ground that even slight variations from the ‘one person, one vote’ rule must be justified as being in pursuit of a reasonable legislative goal (Karcher v. Daggett, 462 U.S. 725 [1983]. This decision casts doubt on the validity of several state congressional districts. In another case (Brown v. Thompson, 462 U.S. 835 [1983]) the Wyoming state legislature redistricting map was upheld even though wide variations existed. The Court accepted the reasoning that each county should have a legislative seat, regarding it as a non-discriminating departure from ‘one person, one vote’”

 However, what led to the Attorney general’s intervention is the manner several state legislatures under Republican control seem to rush to target black areas that potentially vote democratic, because he believes, “We are failing to live up to one of our nation’s most noble, and essential, ideals.” That is why he moved against “a deliberate and systematic attempt” to restrict “millions of voters from exercising their constitutional right to engage in democracy.”

Like every other issue, once the people mobilize and particularly with the support of a friendly government and courageous individuals like Attorney General Eric Holder, the nefarious Republican genii will be put back in the bottle where he belongs.

"Speaking Truth To Empower."



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